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Mad Max: Fury Road - review

For years, I've been complaining about the dumbing-down of movies and the lack of subtlety, complexity, nuance, and meaning in the stories that Hollywood has been willing to tell. Apologists keep telling me that the modern movie-goer doesn't have the patience for deeper, more philosophical narratives. Filling the screen with explosions as audiences shove popcorn down their gullets is the only way to fill the theater seats, they say.

I don't think this is true. After all, many of these movie-goers are the same people who watched (and revere) movies like Alien, The Terminator, The Empire Strikes Back, and the other classic action and science fiction films of yesteryear. These movies were more than just dumb action movies. They had depth. They told well thought-out narratives that took place in believable, lived-in worlds that used subtle details to tell the untold stories behind the scenes with their sets, costumes, props, and other visual elements.

Why can't modern audiences accept movies like that anymore? Why do we have to buy into this idea that an action movie can't have a complex plot with real characters, and action that actually serves a plot while the plot also serves the action? If Mad Max: Fury Road proves financially successful (it's already proven critically successful), then it will prove that modern audiences can accept such a movie.

If you do want to shut off your brain and watch explosions for two hours, then Fury Road has you covered. It is an over-the-top, non-stop orgy of car chases, shoot-outs, and guitars that shoot fire! But it's also so much more.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Furiosa
The action serves a purpose by helping to develop the characters without wasting time with exposition.

The action scenes are very well constructed, and used a lot of practical effects and stunts. The sequences were appropriately chaotic and furious, and didn't suffer from the appearance of being tightly choreographed (even though it certainly was). And every bit of action moved the plot along and provided depth and characterization for the characters.

The movie doesn't waste time with much character exposition. But there is still plenty of development and depth to the characters. The film uses its action to inform the characters' personalities and motivations. For example, the relationship between Furiosa and the brides is never really explained. But through the actions that she takes to protect them (at all costs), it is apparent that there is a deep connection.

Similarly, Max is characterized as having a traumatic past. But we don't have to sit through a long prologue sequence of his family being murdered or even an explicit flashback scene. Instead, brief hallucinations are interspersed throughout the movie as organic parts of action sequences that happen anyway. It gets the point across, without having to spend five or ten minutes on an expository scene that is completely unrelated to the movie's plot.

The plot is limited in scope and scale, meaning that the fears and goals of the characters was much more tangible. This isn't some abstract, over-the-top, save-the-world plot. It's very personal. Even though the film is loaded with nearly non-stop action, it all has meaning and significance. Every action scene has a purpose and moves the plot and characters forward.

Mad Max: Fury Road - flaming guitar
The aesthetic design and cinematography is absolutely incredible.

George Miller has created a desolate, but vibrant, world rich in detail that (as absurd as it seems) feel real and lived-in. The aesthetic design and cinematography in this movie is just mind-blowingly incredible. I absolutely loved the costumes, props, sets, and landscapes; all of which showed tremendous attention to detail. Each new scene (especially in the first half) provided new and interesting visuals to look at, and landscapes that are beautiful in their desolation and hostility. The fury of the dust storm, and the calmness of the bog were two stand out scenes for me.

I have to admit that at first I found it kind of hard to buy into the post-apocalyptic setting and the desperation of humanity. After all, the villain shows such incredible, wanton excess that he is able to maintain this elaborate citadel and fuel and supply this army of supercharged war machines. He even has a giant war-drum truck covered with speakers, complete with a man hanging from bungee cords playing a double-necked guitar that shoots out fire while a drum core beats a marching rhythm. This wardrum wagon helps to seamlessly integrate the movie's background soundtrack with in-universe music.

It's more than a little bit ridiculous.

Mad Max: Fury Road - flaming guitar
A lesser movie would make it hard to buy into the whole resource-deprived, post-apocalyptic setting
when the bad guy shows this level of wanton excess. But even this informs the narrative and builds the world.

But at the same time, in this world, it makes a certain degree of sense. The villain has established himself as a sort of god and constructed this fantastical mythology about how his subjects live by his whim alone, and how he holds the key to the gates of Valhalla and can grant eternal life to whomever serves him faithfully. He has built this mythology around the cars and weapons that his warbands employ to provide the resources and supplies that the citadel needs. His servants literally worship him, pray to an altar of skull-and-chain steering wheels, and use spray-on chrome as a form of warpaint.

He lives in exuberant excess and privilege, while his subjects suffer in abject poverty and squalor, begging for scraps of food and the tiniest drops of water, which he literally showers on them from above. And even the gross excess of the villain is counter-punctuated by a brief scene in which his lieutenant stops him to tell him that his personal greed is wasting more of their supplies and resources than they can justify.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Joe
Costumes, vehicles, props, sets, and environments are all fantastic and intricately-detailed.

All these details come together to show the depth of the villain's hubris, but also establishes the genius by which he provides for his people and maintains the gluttonous lifestyle for himself and his family of mutants. I was also surprised by the level of visual wit. George Miller didn't bother with the witty banter between characters that has become a staple in the scripts of action movies and video games. Instead, he loaded the movie with subtle and clever visual gags (such as the design of the brides' chastity belts).

The craziness of the movie, thus, works because the designers did such an excellent job of world-building, and all the different parts interplay so well together. All the chaos and fury isn't for naught. It isn't mindless violence for the sake of violence. This movie has genuine heart and a positive message of social justice. And it goes well beyond just the social justice message. The movie has many deeper themes and motifs that run throughout.

The most obvious messages will likely be the oppression of the powerful and corruption of absolute power, as well as feminist messages of female empowerment and the cruelty of sexual slavery. The movie is literally about a group of women escaping from the chains of patriarchal sexual slavery. But here shines through the depth and complexity of the genius storytelling, as the righteous feminism is also supplemented with a subversive, counter-feminist message as well. Furiosa promises to take the brides away to a "paradise" world run by women in which the fields are still green and fertile. But when they get there, they find that even that society has collapsed - possibly due to the women's own mismanagement - leaving behind even more wasteland. So instead of escaping into a women's paradise, the characters are forced to go back and save the society that they abandoned, rather than live in their own.

Mad Max: Fury Road - chastity belt
The narrative has multiple levels. There's overt feminist themes of female empowerment,
but also some subtle, subversive, counter-feminist themes.

Furthering the movie's more hippy elements, there are also strong themes of anti-war and environmental stewardship, and how the actions of a few will ruin the world for everybody. There was even some anti-gun motifs spread around, despite all the rampant violence.

This movie may have all the trappings of a "dumb action movie", but it's all about morality and ethics. The action is something that the "popcorn audience" can understand, but "elitist film snobs" could find a lot to like in the nuances of the story and presentation.

If I have any complaint with the movie, it is that it kind of peters out in the second half. I also wasn't quite sure if Tom Hardy's Max character in this movie is supposed to be the same character played by Mel Gibson in the previous Mad Max movies, or if this is some kind of reboot kind of thing.

But any complaints that I have are nitpicky and minor in the grand scale of things. Fury Road is a brilliant action movie with a smart, well-told narrative. If you haven't seen it already, then do yourself a favor and pull yourself away from the onslaught of tedious comic book movies, and go see Mad Max: Fury Road.

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